"You!" When Anastasia finally had the chance to see Alter's face, she couldn't help but shout out.
"Miss Silvergard." Alter nodded following his short reply.
Arthur who was still in a state of high alert observed the exchange in silence as he pointed at Alter with his gun.
Feeling the ensuing silence, Alter took the alternative to initiate a conversation.
"So, we seem to have a situation here, Mister Faulkes." He addressed Arthur directly seeing as he was the one with the gun pointing at him.
"...You know me?" He asked cautiously.
"I did my homework." Alter shrugged, "I also know the fact that you and Miss Silvergard are most likely the two people with the highest scores in this exam."
"..." Arthur stayed silent, although he himself couldn't confirm the fact. At least he knew from what he gathered that his points were overwhelmingly higher than the people he'd encountered.
"Currently, we have exactly 41 minutes and 9 seconds left on the exam. And whether or not your record breaking scores will be recorded in The Institute's database depends on this exact moment." Alter continued, implying that he could end Arthur's participation in this trial even if it cost him his own.
"Now, make your move." He concluded.
"You want me to walk away?" Arthur couldn't help but ask. Putting his gun down was not an option since Alter too was pointing at him, which meant that Alter wanted him to slowly back away until he's out of sight.
"That would be ideal for both of us." He replied.
"Not without Anastasia." Arthur was firm.
At Alter's side Anastasia had yet to come out of her own thoughts after discovering Alter. Ever since she noticed him pointing at her, she had had her mind occupied with what was happening.
Teaming up with Arthur had not only made her realize her lackings but also the fact that Arthur was probably the person with the most potential in this entrance trial. His talent for combat was blinding to say the least, so much so that she even forgot about the one individual she was initially most wary of.
The one that knew the existence of The Archive and one that the Sid Crylancer had acknowledged.
Sid's acknowledgement required more than just talents, after all, every trainees within The Archive were people with potential. But the fact that he'd praised Alter meant that Alter had proven his ability, at least with regards to his detection skills, when he discovered him.
'I couldn't even notice that he had moved to the left side after rolling out. His movement was as polished as The Hive's trainees that I've trained with.'
Her head was spinning with how familiar she was with his maneuver. She was once again reminded on who she should be most cautious against.
For reasons more than one...
"Not without Anastasia."
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of her name being called.
"So if I return her, you will give up on me?" Alter turned his head to ask for confirmation.
And Arthur nodded.
"Oh, then that could be easily arranged." He replied with no tension in his voice.
After that, he did something that made both Arthur and Anastasia turn wide-eyed with surprise.
He let go of both his pistols and slowly put both his hands up to eye level.
Arthur was stunned into silence while Anastasia couldn't help but blurt out her surprise when she saw what he'd done from the corner of her eyes.
Meanwhile, Alter was still calm as he remained standing with both hands halfway up.
"You guys can walk away now. Please lower your weapon." He said to Arthur with a smile.
He knew Arthur's character, the guy wouldn't take the chance to shoot him after all this, his pride and conscience wouldn't allow him to. It might be different if this was a real battlefield and if he was a bit more experienced with real war. But with this being a simple practical exam and with someone like Alter's acceptance to the Institute being on the line if he shoot, there's only one possibility for his next action.
As he predicted, Arthur slowly put down his own gun albeit cautiously so that he would still be ready should Alter pull something unexpected out of the blue. He had only lowered his gun and hadn't put it back into its holster.
"Anastasia, shall we?" Arthur hinted at Anastasia to retreat.
As Alter had predicted Arthur's behaviour, he of course had also anticipated what Anastasia might do in this situation.
Shortly after Arthur's call, Anastasia who had regained her composure back from Alter's unexpected action quickly turned to her left to shoot him with the assault rifle that she was still holding in position all this while.
Alter was ready for such action and promptly responded with one hand grabbing the rifle as close to the handle as he could while the other holding the long barrel and twisting it to his side causing Anastasia to lose her grip in the process.
Realizing that she had lost her leverage, with her quick-wit she quickly tried to recover her momentum by pulling her handgun from the side and racking the slide before pointing it at Alter.
Arthur who was surprised by Anastasia's sudden action couldn't follow in time the event that was happening in front of him and could only raised his gun once more to contain the situation.
Satisfied with that simple action, Anastasia stepped back a single pace from Alter to allow Arthur to gain a clearer view on him.
'The situation has turned!' She smiled.
Right now Alter was having both Anastasia and Arthur with their pistols pointed at him. On the other hand, he was only holding the rifle that he'd taken from her, not at all in a ready to shoot position.
"Whose turn is it to score now?" She calmly asked Arthur.
"...Our scores are currently even. You take it." A reply came soon after.
Although Arthur couldn't really agree with how she had acted, he wouldn't openly oppose Anastasia and cause a commotion. They were a team and Alter was the opponent, he felt bad but since things turned out the way they did, he would of course support her decision.
"Don't mind if I do." Anastasia pulled her trigger without hesitation.
Even though she had pulled the trigger, the recoil that she had expected didn't come, causing a confused expressions to appear on both her and Arthur's face.
Alter slowly held up his other hand that wasn't holding the rifle to show what it was holding to both of them.
It was the magazine of Anastasia's gun.
'When did he...??'
Arthur saw the expression on Anastasia's face slowly changing from that of confusion into one of disbelieve.
Knowing that the situation had gone wrong he quickly decided to finish Alter before he could attempt anything else. But before he could, he soon realized that Alter was already pointing the rifle at him with his eyes still looking at Anastasia.
'That was close... I didn't think she could've responded so quickly and pulled another gun on me.'
Alter was truly impressed, his initial plan was to disarm Anastasia of her rifle and take her hostage to force both her and Arthur to back away, similar to what he'd done with the Twin Death siblings.
Instead, she had been able to react more quickly than what Alter had anticipated causing them to be in another standoff with Arthur once again ready to shoot him and vice versa.
To the side, Anastasia was feeling rather complicated with many thoughts running through her mind.
'How... Since when...?'
Not knowing what she was currently thinking or feeling, Alter threw away the magazine he was holding far away, then he slowly pulled one of his throwing knife and stretched it towards Anastasia's neck to make sure she didn't make any unnecessary movement.
"Square one. Now what do we do? Stay like this until the bell rings?"
Both of them didn't have an answer to that question. They had had the chance to walk away from here but now they're back at this again.
"Or you can try to risk it all, though I'm telling you that there's no scenario in that where all three of us would still be alive at the end of it." Alter shrugged lightly.
Currently, even Alter was thinking hard on how to best handle this. Different from what he said, he couldn't afford to eliminate either of them.
Should a fight truly broke out, he'd be at a huge disadvantage. Non-lethal bullets couldn't shoot to injure or incapacitate without eliminating them. Sure it hurt like hell, but people like Arthur would be able to pull through and return fire.
At most, he could use them as distractions and purely try to dodge as he escape, but the narrow tunnel and his current lacking physique would drastically rise the chances of him taking at least one fatal shot if he tried that.
'Annoying.' He muttered.
"Will... It be too much to ask you to trust us one more time and throw down your weapon once again?" Anastasia gave a wry smile and asked jokingly while holding a glimmer of hope, but to her surprise Alter was answering seriously.
"Sorry, can't risk it this time." He replied.
At first she thought he was talking about the fact that he couldn't trust them a second time. But the more she thought about it, the more she couldn't believe that this man in front of her would even trust them the first time around.
She initially thought that Alter was being a naive idiot for throwing his weapon away after an impromptu promise, her retaliating at the chance was a normal protocol in this situation!
'But then, why?'
With nervousness, she finally decided to open her mouth and ask.
"...What's the difference this time?" She gulped, she could feel that something wasn't right with how things had played out.
"..." Alter stayed silent at the question, keeping his stare at Anastasia in front of him.
"!" She suddenly came to a realization.
'He knew! He somehow knew that Arthur wouldn't shoot and that I would try to retaliate when he let go of his guns the first time!'
'...The reason he can't risk it this time is probably because the variables have changed too much for him to attempt that again.'
'...Unfathomable!' This is the first time Anastasia felt that she had truly been outwitted by someone.
Of course it was also true that had she not underestimated him when he discarded his own weapons, she could've planned a better counter-attack than a simple turn and shoot. But with the results being what they were, all those ifs were just futile excuses.
Arthur couldn't quite grasp the meaning of Anastasia's question but he could see that she seemed to have understood something about this strong opponent in front of them.
But either way, the three people still couldn't do anything with their deadlock situation.
Another 10 minutes passed by within the narrow tunnel slightly away from the intersection.
Both sides still hadn't made any large movements against each other.
Alter was pointing a rifle at Arthur and holding a throwing knife against Anastasia's neck, Arthur was holding a gun against Alter, and Anastasia was backed against the wall without being able to do anything.
Feeling that the silence was unbearable, Anastasia finally took a deep breath before attempting to ask a question to the mysterious man in front of her.
"...How do you know Arthur?" She raised her head looking at the slightly taller Alter for answers.
Arthur's ears perked up at the question, as he also wanted to hear the answer.
"Like I said, I did my homework." Alter replied lazily.
Hearing the familiar answer, Arthur was quite skeptical. It would be more believable if he were from some influential family or had made some reputations for himself, but the current him was neither a noble nor a reputable person.
'Liar. If it were as simple as that, he wouldn't have made a plan that completely hinged on the fact that Arthur wouldn't shoot him when he dropped his guns.' Anastasia thought in her mind.
"Then how do you know about me?" She asked again.
"Same answer." Alter replied accordingly.
This time, Arthur was more inclined to believe since the Silvergard family was quite a well-known nobles that were responsible in managing the Calistran Library.
But contrary to Arthur's thoughts, Anastasia's expressions were now filled with annoyance. She gritted her teeth so hard before lashing out in anger.
"LIES! You know what I'm talking about and there's no way you would know about us by just doing 'homework'!!"
Seeing Anastasia was on the track of blurting out something she shouldn't, Alter finally showed a change in his expression. His eyes began to show a trace of coldness which Arthur noticed almost immediately.
But somehow, because Anastasia was too consumed with her own emotion, she didn't realize this change early enough too keep her next sentence to herself.
"Explain right now!! What's your connection with The Midni..." Halfway through, she felt the pressure tightening on her neck from the throwing knife held by Alter.
Fortunately, that bit of pressure was enough for her to finally notice the changes in the atmosphere before the suit was triggered by it and eliminated her.
The second thing she noticed right after was the aura emitted by Alter towards the surrounding area. She suddenly felt suffocated with cold sweats running through her face.
'Killing intent!' Of course she of all people would recognize what the aura was.
When Alter knew for sure that Anastasia had stopped at last, he quickly pulled back his intimidating aura and almost immediately, the surrounding area seemed to return to how they were before.
He only did this much to stop her from making a big mistake, he tried his best to be as subtle as possible.
Even Arthur who was slightly farther away from the two could only feel a slight change, aside from Alter's expression he didn't even realize that the throwing knife had been pressed further into the neck part of Anastasia's suit.
By this point, even Anastasia had realized that she almost did something stupid. Had she finished that sentence without Alter interfering, the best case scenario would be Arthur, the only one who knew nothing, being found dead a couple days later in some corner of the kingdom.
One might ask how would The Archive discover this conversation held deep underground in the middle of a trial?
But the heiress to the organization was right in front of Alter's eyes, the question should be how would they NOT know what had transpired.
The silver lining, if there were any, is that the current Arthur seemed more cautious against Alter's change in expression rather than the content of the conversation. And since the sentence was cut before any crucial 'keywords' were let out, he might make it out after a bit of indirect information probing by The Archive's bookmen to determine how much he'd gathered from the conversation.
'Reckless!!!' Even Alter was appalled at how reckless and hot-headed The Future Head was being. The whole future almost went in a totally different direction from her one sentence.
Knowing her recklessness almost cost her someone's life, even Anastasia herself couldn't help but shudder in fear of the consequences as she glanced at Arthur.
Silence ensued once again. This time for almost an entire minute, before Arthur decided to open his mouth.
"...Do you two know each other before this?" He could only ask this after he saw them turning so serious mid-conversation.
Anastasia had asked how their opponent knew about her and her family and was about to ask a follow-up question when both sides suddenly turned silent for a good minute.
Since the timing of her going silent somehow coincide with Alter's change in attitude, Arthur had assumed that Anastasia stopped because she was either nervous or scared of Alter.
But throughout their whole interaction with him, he had shown no signs of having any knowledge regarding her family aside from speaking her last name, Arthur could only conclude that they had had previous interactions before this just like himself and Anastasia.
When he asked this, both Alter and Anastasia turned their heads to look at him before letting out an inaudible sigh of relief.
"No, of course not. How could someone like me ever get myself acquainted with someone of Miss Silvergard's stature." Alter then showed his usual smile as he answered Arthur.
"But it seems... the things I said about your family before the written exam were way overboard. So, I would like to sincerely express my apology." He turned slightly towards Anastasia and gave a meaningful glance before bowing his head a little.
Noticing quickly what Alter was doing, she reluctantly decided to cooperate with him for Arthur's sake.
"Don't ever assume you know anything about me or my family just because you've dug through some information about us!" She gave a loud harrumph and ended their little theatrics.
Arthur gave a somewhat understanding look and went silent. He didn't ask anymore questions as he was not a talkative person from the start, he wouldn't want to meddle on others family problems.
The time remaining in the exam was: 26 minutes
Shortly after their last conversation, there were finally signs of other people going through the web of tunnels closing in on them. Listening to the steps, the three who were still standing in a deadlock shared a look.
"A group, around 3 people?" Arthur asked in a low voice.
"4 people." Anastasia corrected him and Alter just gave a slight nod in agreement to her assessment.
Looking from the 2's perspective, the other group's arrival was not at all a good news for them since they already had their hands full with Alter. Moreover, considering Anastasia didn't have anymore firearms ready at the moment, the incoming variables could prove to be the worst possible outcome to their standoff.
The footsteps were getting closer, they could sense that the examinees were coming from the left side of the intersection where they had first engaged in combat with Alter.
Both Anastasia and Arthur were starting to get nervous since they couldn't afford to let Alter out of their sights.
'Are we going to get eliminated? If we divert our attention to the newcomers, than we're sure to get eliminated by this guy...'
'But if we keep the standoff for as long as we can, at least the pressure of the incoming danger would be shared by all 3 of us!' Anastasia's thoughts led her to one conclusion.
"Arthur, keep the standoff! Don't let this guy off of our sights!" She warned her partner.
Arthur understood her logic and gave a nod, both of them were looking at Alter's face to see his reaction to their decision.
But Alter expressed nothing and also continued the standoff quietly.
A chicken game.
'Impressive.' In Alter's mind, he admired his future Head's quick thinking and decision making.
Not long after, the vanguard of the incoming group reached the intersection and detected the 3 people, he gave a halt sign to the people behind him.
When he understood the gist of the situations looking at the 3 people, he let out a grin and shout out his next command.
'What good luck! Free points before the end!'
"Enemies ahead, 3 targets!"
The group of 4 quickly got into formation.
When Alter noticed that the enemy had halted a bit at the intersection, he let out a smile at Anastasia who was still looking at him intensely.
He knew what she wanted from him.
"Truce?" He looked at both Anastasia and Arthur.
'Finally!' Anastasia shouted in her mind and gave a nod.
"Enemies ahead! 3 targets!" The shout came soon after.
Alter, as if once again showing his sincerity, was the first to turn and walked forward until he reached Arthur's position.
Arthur was still pointing his gun at Alter until both of them were in-line at the front, and then he too turned his body towards the enemies at the intersection.
Behind, after watching Alter moved forward, Anastasia quickly dashed towards his earlier position to pick up his 2 thrown pistols. She needed the weapons to protect herself.
When the sound came, Alter quickly took a step back and threw the rifle he was holding at Anastasia.
She was caught of guard and fumbled a bit as she tried to catch the rifle. Since Arthur was busy taking cover at the medium sized rock on the side while avoiding the rain of incoming bullets and returning fire, he too couldn't afford to pay more attention on Alter.
"Well, this is farewell for now. Miss Silvergard, Mister Faulkes." He suddenly spoke and ran to the opposite direction of the intersection.
When Anastasia finally caught the rifle, she saw a glimpse of the running Alter. His run didn't follow any fixed tempo, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, and sometimes dashing to the side.
It was another movement technique taught by the Institute, she could quickly recognized it because most of the trainees she had seen used it whenever they were confronting direct fire.
Because of the narrow tunnels, it was not quite as effective and she was sure she could hit him given the time. But currently, she and Arthur were facing the firing of another group of people and she couldn't afford to focus on Alter.
The only reason she was temporarily shielded from the bullets was because she was leaning on the wall of the slightly winding tunnel just like how Alter initially avoided their attacks. She was out of sight from the enemies' point of view but they were slowly closing in.
Anastasia growled and stomped the ground with her feet as hard as she could.
She was currently so pissed after meeting Alter! Not only did she not get any closer to unveiling his mysterious background, she even seemed to owe him one for almost letting out The Archive's secret in front of Arthur.
She was usually a very composed and cool-headed individual, maybe even more so than Arthur was, that's why they had a very good chemistry throughout the exam. This was the first time that she made such a blunder when confronting someone.
Without the person she was pissed at around, she could only redirect her anger at these incoming group of ignorant people.
'You guys are dead!' She muttered under her breath, still trying to maintain a cool face as she turned towards the rain of bullets.
Arthur noticed the growling and stomping sound from the side and thought to himself, 'So even the ice queen could show that much emotion...'
Of course he too had noticed that Alter had gotten away from the scene. But the most amazing thing that he noticed was that when he tried to locate the 2 pistols that Alter put down on the ground initially, they were no longer there.
'We still don't know who he is...'
Without anymore eventful meetings, Alter passed the rest of the time in a relatively peaceful manner.
He didn't worry about whether or not Arthur or Anastasia could make it out alive, the opponents were amateurs who couldn't even realize that their enemies were equipped with better covers and surroundings while they themselves were out in the open pushing forward mindlessly.
There was no way that two Shining Generation members would be eliminated in that situation.
'Well, at least they know something about formations don't they?' Alter recalled that the group of 4 had spent quite a lot of time to get into position.
Although that in itself was a stupid move, them applying their knowledge on combat formations on the field was already quite good. Even more so knowing that they managed to survive thus far.
One must remember that most of the examinees parricipating in the trial were just normal 16-year-olds who had been living in the comfort of a highly civilized and modern society.
'It was the would be Shining Generation members who were abnormal.' He concluded.
And just like that, the remaining 20 or so minutes on the practical exam passed by uneventfully. At least for Alter anyway.
His score remained at 11 and when the final seconds ran out. The alarms installed in every discrete locations all around the underground simulation field blast off all at once followed by the announcement on the end of the practical exam and the Entrance Trial as a whole.